17 October 2014

Flash Fiction Panel at Story Con!

Good news, everyone! I'll be moderating a panel on "Where to Find Great Flash Fiction Online" this Saturday, October 18th, at 12:30PM at the Fort Vancouver Community Library. This is part of the first-ever Story Con, a Portland-area event started by Erik Wecks which aims to help readers "find their next great book."

I managed to talk four other genre writers into doing the panel with me:
We're a pretty diverse bunch, and I expect the conversation to meander quite a bit. (In fact, I'll be disappointed if it doesn't.) I can promise it won't be boring in any case.

If you're in the Portland area tomorrow, come check us out!


08 August 2014

Situation Normal, All Flacked Up

As you know, Bob, I have a short story in the military horror anthology SNAFU, published by the nice folks at Cohesion Press.

And, as you further know, I am not above a bit of shameless self-promotion. Here are some of the very nice things readers have said (minor spoilers below):

"SNAFU is a very strong horror anthology with plenty of compelling tales... My top favorite stories of this collection include: ... Making Waves by Curtis Chen: Another WWII tale, but with a Mythos theme."
- RichardPF, Amazon.com review

"Let’s look briefly at a few of my favorite offerings [from SNAFU]... Curtis C. Chen, 'Making Waves': When a magician teleports aboard an allied submarine off the coast of Japan during World War II, her objective is simple and direct—to awaken the Kraken hidden in the depths and thereby keep the Japanese too busy with defense to mount an offensive; the task becomes more intricate, however, when she discovers that instead of one Kraken, the area harbors two Elder Things."
- Michael R. Collings, Collings Notes

"Curtis C. Chen’s Making Waves adds magic and slumbering things beneath the sea to World War II, and uses them to provide an alternate explanation for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also makes good use of gender and racial themes. Plus, submarines. I’m actually surprised that it’s the only submarine story in the book, given how easy it is to make that environment tense and creepy."
- Paul Douglas, A Comfy Chair

ETA (31 Mar 2015):
"Curtis C. Chen's 'Making Waves' is another fun monster story, this time dealing with...Elder Things. It should be enough that it has humongous and terrifying monsters of the sea, but throw in some magic, an alternate reality of World War 2 (I'm a sucker for alternate reality stories) and you have a grand old time. This is a tale that's begging for [a] film version, preferably directed by Guillermo del Toro."
- Steve Pattee, Horror Talk

ETA (03 Apr 2015):
"‘Making Waves’ by Curtis C. Chen manages to maintain the quality with an engaging story set within the claustrophobic confines of a nuclear submarine. A Lovecraftian tale of creatures of the deep with magic and teleportation thrown into the mix, the author creates a believable environment that makes it possible for the reader to assimilate these more outlandish elements, rather than them seem jarring. Characterisation is strong and the only criticism would be that the final section causes the story to rather peter out after the excitement of the final confrontation and seems only to be there to suggest that there are further stories to be told."
- Ross Warren, This Is Horror

ETA (28 Mar 2016):
"'Making Waves' is a Lovecraft-influenced piece that has a lot of potential, but never quite manages to capture the tone of creeping horror that characterizes the best Lovecraftian tales. Its best ideas are actually its characters—Hatcher in particular has a very compelling story—and its WWII naval setting. There’s enough story seeds here to carry a novel, and I think the characters could definitely benefit from more room to grow."
- Bridget McKinney, SF Bluestocking

So feel free to go buy SNAFU, if you like that sort of thing. Thanks for reading!


11 July 2014

More Than 512 Words

Hey look, another of my stories has been published! This one is in SNAFU, a military horror anthology:


My story is "Making Waves," and yes, it's based on the 512 of the same name. Among other things, you may notice that I changed the name of the main character, and I made the magic system a bit more specific to this world.

The SNAFU Kindle eBook is on sale now for just six American dollars. Hardcover, paperback, and other eBook formats to follow soon.

BTW, here are two other stories that grew out of 512s and got published:

"Somebody's Daughter" (based on "Who's Your Daddy?") appeared in Leading Edge Issue 65. Buy it on Kindle for just $3 and find out how Jake & Andy deal with a woman whose mother was a clone, and who thinks Jake is her biological father!

"Don't Fence Me In" (based on this 512) appeared in Song Stories: Blaze of Glory, which is FREE for Amazon Prime members to borrow.

Happy reading!


20 June 2014

512 eBook now just TWO DOLLARS


As you may know, Bob, I'm going to Clarion West on Sunday. I'm hugely excited about this, and to celebrate, I've reduced the price of the Thursday's Children Kindle eBook to a paltry $1.99 (cheap!).

I've also slashed the price of the trade paperback edition to $11.99. That's a mere 10¢ per story (you get 117 of 'em), not to mention awesome cover and interior art by Natalie Metzger! However, I just submitted the pricing change yesterday, so it may take up to a week to propagate through to Amazon and other booksellers. Apologies if you have to wait to order at the new price.

In related news, lending copies of Thursday's Children are now on the shelves at the Multnomah County Library and Fort Vancouver Regional Library! And I can't tell you how ecstatic I was when I found out about this. Seriously, it's the second best writing-related news I've had in, like, a month.

(BTW, you're welcome to also recommend Thursday's Children as a purchase for your local library. There's no guarantee they'll acquire a copy, but it can't hurt to ask your friendly neighborhood librarian.)

So, to sum up: you can now buy the Thursday's Children Kindle eBook for just $1.99, or the trade paperback for $11.99. Please spread the word!


07 February 2014

Making Book: A Great Reason to Throw a Party

(With apologies to Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

Time for some numbers! Are you ready? As of today--Friday, February 7th, one week after Thursday's Children officially went on sale--here's how many copies have been sold:
  • 8 Kindle eBooks
  • 13 paperbacks
Of course, that doesn't count the 15 copies I purchased to give away as gifts--10 of them at last week's launch party--or the free downloads: 120 PDF and 11 plain text. (Creative Commons wins, amirite?)

There are now over 160 copies of the book in the hands of readers, and that's fantastic.

None of this is at all record-breaking, but it's not bad for a single-author short story collection by an obscure writer, with no marketing budget and no promotion aside from a handful of Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail messages.

Besides, this was never about "sales velocity." (I'm a terrible salesman, and I learned years ago to just stop trying.) It's not even really about sales. Honestly, nobody who doesn't know me has any reason to care about this book, and not even all of my friends or family will be interested in it. I appreciate all the congratulatory messages I've received, but I don't expect anyone to rush out and buy the book just because I wrote it.

I wrote these stories because I wanted people to read them. You can still find all of them online, but most people prefer their reading material packaged in some kind of book format--because that process implies editorial intervention and approval. Presenting something as a book is the publisher telling the reader that people who care about its content have looked at it, reviewed it, curated it and made it the best they could before actually publishing it.

When you pick up a book, you're trusting that its author and publisher have worked for months or years to ensure that the book you're about to read is something you'll enjoy. And that's why it feels like a betrayal when a book doesn't fulfill that promise.

Thursday's Children is not for everyone. (I pointed out to one friend that his grade-school-aged daughters should definitely not read it until they're older.) I hope the variety of stories included will appeal to a wide audience, but like I said, I'm a terrible salesman. I have no idea how to identify those "leads" and "target" them for "acquisition."

I'm playing the long game here, hoping that by putting my stuff out there for free, the people who find it and love it will help spread the word. (If you happen to be one of those people, the best thing you can do to support the book is to tell two friends about it, and ask them to tell two friends, and...) It might be a very long game, but I can wait.

Meanwhile, I'll keep writing.


31 January 2014

Making Book: Happy New Book!

(With apologies to Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

Today's the day! You can now buy Thursday's Children in paperback or Kindle editions:

Attack of the stacks of paperbacks

My friend Kenna checks the eBook

I know traditionally published authors may wait as long as two years from the time they submit a finished manuscript to when the book actually goes on sale, and I imagine that's rather torturous. It's been maybe five months since DeeAnn and I started working on Thursday's Children, and though I'm very happy with how much we accomplished in such a short time, this final week has been a real crunch, and I'm ready for the production process to be over. (Mostly. I still have to produce an EPUB file to push to other, non-Amazon eBook distributors, but that's always been lower priority.)

Today is also the the start of the Chinese New Year, traditionally a time for celebration and hope (and red envelopes). It's now the year of the horse. In Chinese, the characters for "horse" and "mother" are very similar, and in fact, they're near-homophones in Mandarin, differing only in inflection. I don't know why I mentioned that. It's not really relevant. I may be a little punchy. Did you know my mom worked for many years as a public librarian? It's true.

One last thing... I may not have mentioned it before, but I'm releasing Thursday's Children under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. (You can download PDF and plain text versions of the entire book for free, and re-share them as much as you like. Please. I'm begging you.) I started the 512 Words of Fewer project with the same license, and I still believe it's a good idea. Because I am pretty much a nobody in the wider writing world, and making a name for myself is more important than making money at this point.

Sure, my friends and family and other acquaintances who like me are extremely supportive, but the few hundred people I know personally isn't a big enough audience to build a career. If I ever want one thousand true fans, I'm going to need an even greater number of casually interested readers, and I want as few barriers as possible between them and my content, for that fraction of a second between pictures of cats with pork products adhered to them.

Hi! I'm Curtis Chen. I write science fiction and fantasy. Would you like to read some of my stories?


24 January 2014

Making Book: The Mythical One-Man Band

(With apologies to Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

Just in case it wasn't clear before: THURSDAY'S CHILDREN is self-published. Yes, I said self-published. I know some writers prefer the term "indie author," but I don't feel the need for that bit of dress-up. Let's call a spade a spade. This one book will not bring me any sort of fame or fortune. Nobody in the history of the world has ever gotten rich off a frickin' short story collection.

The main reason I'm publishing at all is to commemorate a personal milestone, and to share it with my family and friends. I've written more than two hundred and fifty stories, y'all. That's a hell of a thing. I want to celebrate it, and you're invited to join me. That's all.

So I'm self-publishing this book for fun. I am doing the work mostly by myself, but I'm not doing it alone. What's the difference? I'm not alone, because I couldn't do any of this without the infrastructure and systems that others have already built.

It's like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) says:

There is an entire Internet of resources that I've taken advantage of, and which have been absolutely necessary for this project. I don't begrudge any of those other individuals and organizations the money I've paid for their tools or the time I've spent learning how to use them.

Here's a short list of just some of the software, sites, and services I've used in the creation of this book: Scrivener, Microsoft Word, GIMP, Emacs, Lulu, Createspace, Amazon, BookBaby, Blogger, Gmail, Chrome, Flickr, and PayPal.

(By the way, that list doesn't include all the standards—file formats, network protocols, and more—that make it possible for me to turn my raw data into something humans will want to look at. For example: HTML/XHTML, CSS, JPEG, PNG, TIFF, PDF, DOC/DOCX, MOBI, EPUB, and ZIP, to name just a few.)

And then there are the people, actual human beings, who helped me with the production process: DeeAnn Sole, my redoubtable editor; Laura Mixon, who wrote a fantastic introduction; and Natalie Metzger, who created the amazing cover art and interior illustrations. Plus there are all the 512 readers who gave feedback over the last five years, and my fellow writers who offered invaluable publishing advice. (You'll find a more complete list in the Acknowledgements section at the back of the book.)

I could have made the book without these people, but it would have been a much inferior thing.

Nobody creates in a vacuum. If nothing else, any artist needs an audience for her work; sometimes it's an audience of one, but in most cases, we want a plurality to see and enjoy our work. At the very least, it's asking yourself: "Will anybody else care about this?" And in a world of seven billion people, the answer is probably YES. Then it's a matter of crafting your work so that it's meaningful and appealing, to whatever degree satisfies your sensibilities, commercial or otherwise.

It's okay to make art for art's sake, and not expect to reap a dime of financial reward. I mean, hell, I spend who knows how many hours making at least a dozen free puzzling events every year, and even spend my own hard-earned money (and precious time) to subsidize their creation. I do this because I want to share those fun things with other like-minded people. If I get something tangible in return, great. I'm not expecting it. That's not why I do the work.

All that is to say that I don't expect to break even on self-publishing THURSDAY'S CHILDREN. (You know the old joke: How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Well, you start with a large fortune...) I don't expect to sell more than a hundred copies of the book—if that many—and that's just fine. I'm doing this for love, not money. And we will do things for love that we would not do for any amount of money.


18 January 2014

Making Book: Inspirations and Introductions

(With apologies to Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

Before I get into this week's behind-the-scenes stuff, a quick announcement:

Thursday's Children, the 512 book, is officially launching on Friday, January 31, 2014 (less than two weeks from today), in eBook and trade paperback. Mark your calendars!

Now, let me tell you about the notable science fiction author who wrote the introduction for Thursday's Children. (TL;DR: it's Laura J. Mixon, and she's awesome.)

As you know, Bob, I attended the Viable Paradise (VP) science fiction and fantasy writers' workshop in 2008. See how excited I was when I got the news of my acceptance? I was not disappointed by the experience. A bit overwhelmed, perhaps; VP packs a lot of stuff into a single week. And Thursday night... well, we don't talk about Thursday night.

I met a lot of great people at VPXII. My classmates included the amazing Claire Humphrey, munchkin wrangler Marko Kloos, "the other Asian guy" Anthony Ha, and more.

And then there were the instructors: the distinguished Nielsen Haydens, Uncle Jim & Doctor Doyle, Scalzi, Bear, Steven Gould, and Laura Mixon.

Every one of these people had something important to teach me, and even if I'm still figuring out how to apply many of those lessons, the time I spent on the island was invaluable.

In particular, Laura Mixon offered a refreshing, analytical perspective on writing, which resonated with me—we're both engineers by training, and I love it when there's actual data behind a presentation. (Laura even has research to back up her use of the gender-neutral pseudonym "M. J. Locke." PREACH.) At VPXII, she lectured about a cognitive model of the writing process. "There's a study," she said more than once, before explaining the science of it.

The example I remember best involved two creative writing classes: one was told their work had to be perfect; the other was graded by word count. The result? The second class actually produced, instead of agonizing over whether they could produce for each assignment—and their final work was of comparable quality to the first class' output, plus there was much more of it. More practice was better. Quantity trumps quality.

For a time when I was younger, I hated the word "practice," because it meant sitting in front of the piano and playing the same piece or passage over and over again, with very little variation, until I got it right or made some measurable improvement in technique. It was tedious, and as a child, there were a million other more interesting things I wanted to do.

It takes great discipline to have a long-term goal in mind, and to work tirelessly toward that goal. It helps if you enjoy what you're doing along the way, because plans changes, and you may end up in a totally different place than you originally targeted. And here's the thing: you don't need to be good at something in order to enjoy it.

As Laura explained at VP, there are four stages of learning a new skill:
  1. unconscious incompetence - you have no idea what you're doing, and you're not very good at it
  2. conscious incompetence - you're trying real hard, but you still suck
  3. unconscious competence - you're getting better, but you don't really understand how or why
  4. conscious competence - you know exactly what you're doing, and you're good at it
It's important to note that reaching that fourth stage is not the endgame. You may be good, but you're not great. At this point, the ten-thousand-hours rule applies—especially in "cognitively demanding" fields like playing the piano, where competence is a long way from mastery. Writers often talk about the million words of crap (give or take) which you need to get out of your system before you're producing stuff of publishable quality. And even at that point, it's still a buyer's market. It's good to be good, but it's better to be lucky.

Does any of that discourage me? No. Because I love what I'm doing. I spent 4.9 years writing (or at least editing) a new piece of 512 flash fiction every week. That amounts to a grand total of roughly 130,000 words, and maybe 1,000 hours of practice. During that same time period, I also spent a lot of time writing other stuff—short stories, novels, non-fiction, puzzles, and more—but 512 Words or Fewer was the one thing that demanded regular, deliberate effort, and I am confident it has done more than any other single project to improve my skills as a writer.

None of that would have happened without VPXII and Laura Mixon, and I'm elated that she agreed to write a brief introduction for Thursday's Children. Her intro is the source of the blurb at the top of the 512 book web page, and you should also go read her most recent novel, because it's damn good.


10 January 2014

Making Book: 1,024 Words or More

(With apologies to Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

Remember that surprise puzzle hunt my friends organized for my birthday last year? (Yeah, no, I'm never going to stop talking about it. Because awesome.) Well, that same weekend, our friend Natalie sent me this "Cowboys and Aliens" fan art as an early birthday gift:

That was also completely unexpected and wonderful. And it got me to thinking, since DeeAnn and I had already decided to publish a collection of 512 stories: we're going to need a cover. Why not hire Natalie to draw it?

(The image above is also what I used for the "not very good" cover mock-up mentioned last week.)

I'm not precisely sure when I first met Natalie—it was probably during one of the JoCo cruises or at some kind of Doubleclicks-related event in the Portland area, where we both live. But I knew she was quite an accomplished artist—she was one of five finalists in Scalzi's Redshirts fan art contest—and her illustrations had a cartoony, whimsical style that I liked a lot.

So, back in November, I asked her how she was at drawing vehicles. She said she could handle spaceships and dirigibles and probably more. And away we went.

We met just once in person to discuss concepts, and everything else happened by e-mail. Her first set of sketches included two designs with elements that clicked right away, including the astronaut-not-loving-her-EVA:


I had already thrown out the idea of using interior illustrations to break up the 117 stories into thematic sections—one character per theme—and asked if she could find some way to incorporate those same characters into the front cover. I sent her some feedback on those initial sketches, and she came up with this:

That's pretty much the final layout, as you'll see below, with one character showing through each of those portholes. I was impressed with how quickly she dialed it in, and well how the rest of it all came together.

For reference, here are her finished pencils and inks:


We also went through another, somewhat parallel process to figure out the six theme characters. That also went very quickly, except for making sure that a small picture of a female superhero would read correctly and with the right amount of gravitas.

Here are some "super-lady" designs that didn't quite hit the target, for various reasons which I could only articulate after seeing them:

Once we got the characters nailed down, it was just a matter of picking which three should appear in the portholes. We also went back and forth on fonts and engine colors for a bit, but I'll spare you those details and just show you the final cover art:

Long story short: I love it. It's far better than anything I could have imagined or produced on my own, and I think it conveys the perfect tone for this collection.

I look forward to working with Natalie again, and next time, I'll do my best to give her some more monsters to draw. :)


03 January 2014

Making Book: By Any Other Name

(With apologies to Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

I'm terrible at coming up with story titles. If you've read more than a couple of 512s, you already know this; my typical go-tos are song titles (e.g., "Don't Fence Me In") or the titles of SF/F novels (e.g., "Stranger in a Strange Land"). Because you can't copyright a title, and I'm lazy. I also like re-using existing phrases, because I can then exploit that emotional resonance. Or just turn it into an awful pun. Both are good.

For this book, however, I wanted something that was at least a little more evocative and meaningful. I'm not a big fan of one-word titles, which can seem very generic, but I also didn't want something too long, since I planned to add some kind of explanatory subtitle to describe the content (i.e., to make it clear that this was a short fiction collection).

Because I am so very lazy, I procrastinated on this until DeeAnn and I started working with our friend and awesome artist Natalie Metzger on the cover and interior illustrations. I'll talk more about that process next week, but she was invaluable in helping me nail down the title and also figure out exactly what images should go on the cover.

Long story short, the relevant portion of our e-mail conversation went roughly like this:

Natalie: Have you come up with a title yet?

Me: ...

(three days pass)

Me: How about SUCCESSFUL EXPERIMENTS? Or WRITTEN ON THURSDAY? And here's a mock-up which is not very good. :)

(image attachment sent)

DeeAnn: I like WRITTEN ON THURSDAYS. And I agree, that mock-up is not good. ;)

(the next day)

Natalie: How about THURSDAY STORIES? I like how the day sounds in the title.

Me: I've got it... THURSDAY'S CHILDREN!

(End of scene.)

So there you are: the title of the book will be Thursday's Children: Flash Fiction from 512 Words or Fewer. It's not strictly a "best of" collection, as I explained last week, but it does include many of the most interesting and successful results of my often late-night weekly writing sessions--which usually happened on Thursdays. And some of them have grown up to become longer works, but many others are still developing.

In case you're curious about the mock-up image which I sent as part of the e-mail thread cited above: That's directly related to Natalie's artwork, and I'll show you how next week.